"Working Kids"

by Saukok Chu





"My mom's worked at just about all the garment factories in New York. The JC Penney ones pay the best, but they're really picky. They dock your salary for every mistake, and they only pay by the piece."


Janie is 16. She came to Chinatown with her family three years ago. Her mother works in a sweatshop garment factory which pays about $5 an hour; her father was laid off a few months ago from his job in a Chinese restaurant.

I met Janie last summer when she applied for a job through the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), a federally-funded program which places low-income teenagers in minimum-wage jobs. I was working for the Chinese American Planning Council, the largest provider of social services for people of Asian descent in the country and the Chinatown umbrella organization for SYEP.

Janie was one of the 100 teenagers I monitored during my 12 weeks in New York City. As part of my duties, I helped the kids find work through the city's Department of Employment. After they got a job, I checked up on them at their work-site once a week.

When I first met the kids, they seemed just like the teenagers in Westchester, New York, my affluent, suburban hometown. They wore Polo and Nautica clothes, and sported Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani glasses. They might not speak perfect English, but they knew how to curse.

Then I saw their parents' work information. Pay stub after pay stub was from garment factories and restaurants. No one was working in a white-collar job.

Tight finances were always a problem, the kids admitted to me. Their parents were struggling to put food on the table. The families lived in tiny tenements in Chinatown, or in multi-family houses in Brooklyn -- where a two-bedroom floor goes for about $600 a month.

During the job application process, I sat down with a distraught boy whose initial application had been rejected. He begged me to help him get a job. His papers showed that his parents were supporting six children on an annual income of $10,000.


Medicare and Muggings

One day, I was called in to handle a problem with one of the kids. Lily had been coming late to work for several days.

It seemed out of character for the quiet 15-year-old girl. I questioned her about her lateness that day. She told me she had been going to government agencies in the mornings. Her mother had just received a kidney transplant, she said, and needed medicine for post-operation complications -- medicine which cost $800 a month. The family's Medicare had run out, and Lily's father was in danger of losing his job. Lily had been spending her mornings rushing from one government office to another, trying to renew her mother's Medicare benefits.

John, a 16-year-old I supervised, said that he often gets robbed in school. Andy told me that he didn't want to take the subway to his Brooklyn home --at 8 p.m. --because he would get mugged. He had been mugged twice before while walking the two blocks home from the subway station. He was 18, but still afraid to walk the street.

I was surprised to hear these truths.

But I was even more surprised to hear the kids speak so openly about them. When I first started out in my job, I had been extra cautious when talking with the kids, because I had thought that I might embarrass someone with details about their economic situation. Soon I found out that being poor wasn't a "personal" or "private" issue for these kids. They were open about their economic situation and their personal lives.

Perhaps this openess comes of necessity.


9 to 9 at 13

It was pay day, and I was taking Christina, a petite 13-year-old girl, to cash a check. On the way to the check-cashing agency, I asked her how she was going to spend her money.

"I give all of it to my mom. We need it," she said. She smiled. "Sometimes she's really nice and gives me back $10."

Check cashed, Christina held a wad of $200 in her hands. She fumbled around as she tried to open her purse.

"Are you sure you should be waving that money around in plain sight?" I asked her, looking at the gutted buildings surrounding us apprehensively.

"I'll be fine. I know kung-fu," she said, not smiling at all.

After her 9-to-4 summer job, Christina went to work at a sweatshop, where she earned $5 an hour for sewing. Actually, her sweatshop wasn't so rough, compared to others where other teens in the program had worked. One of the the young men, Jin, told me about working at a garment factory doing textile pressing. For hours, he would stand in front of a massive steam-ironing board. Every few seconds, he would have to push the board down, quickly and firmly, against a piece of fabric. After doing it for two hours, Jin would be ready to drop, he said.

Many of the kids' fathers performed this type of labor more than 40 hours a week. They didn't have much of a choice. For instance, Andy came to America when he was 2 years old. Now he is eighteen, and his parents still work at sweatshops from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., every day, Monday through Friday. Without a good grasp of English, many adult immigrants are consigned to working interminable hours in garment factories or in food service industries.

Their only hope is that their children will someday live better lives than they do.

The "American Dream" seems ironic in the face of what these families have sacrificed for the lives they now live. Some of the kids with whom I worked told me stories about how their families, believing the United States would be their "promised land," had spent entire life savings and waited a long time to enter the country illegally. Vicky, one such teen, told me that her parents had been smuggled into the country by boat, six years ago, after spending years in China planning and saving up for the trip. After a few years, they managed to have Vicky and her sister legally brought to America.

The teens in this work program recognize the sacrifices their parents make. They do what they can to give back. Andy waits for his parents to come home at 10 p.m., so that the whole family can have dinner together. Ben gives up his lunch break from his summer job to work at his father's sidewalk stand. It's the only time Ben's father has to use a restroom and eat lunch. After he ends his workday, Ben buys groceries at the local market and cooks his family's dinner.

Yet most of the kids don't complain. They simply point out that, for them, China was worse.

"The World's Best College"

Janie wrote me a letter recently: "...Harvard is a really good school. I've heard of it. Maybe I'd like to come there. What do you think? I want to be a singer when I grow up, but I also want to be a businesswoman and make lots of money.

"I think I'm pretty happy now, though, so maybe the money isn't very important..."

I like to think about Janie, about how far she has come. She entered her Brooklyn high school knowing almost no English. She struggled in classes with kids her age, who had grown up in U.S. schools. Now she's a sophomore. She's taking biology and history with other sophomores, and she's doing pretty well. She hopes to go to a good college. Through her example, she reminds me to appreciate what I have in life.

Once, we were talking about how she used to work in a local sweatshop. "I worked there after school," she said. "The boss liked me. She gave me this really nice dress that we were making for JC Penney. It cost $50!"

And she smiled. "Imagine, a $50 dress, and from JC Penney ..."




 "Working Kids" © 1996 by Saukok Chu

This work first appeared in Harvard University's publication Diversity and Distinction. Reprinted by permission.

Original Graphics © 1996 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal
and Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo



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